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Do we teach boys and girls differently?

Do we teach boys and girls differently?

4 min read
  • The science of learning

From even the early stages of pregnancy, boys and girls are often treated differently. From different colours for gender reveals through to the type of toys they are typically bought, parents treat their children differently based on their gender. However, parents aren’t the only adults that children learn from. How does a teacher’s perception of gender influence how teach boys and girls?

It can be uncomfortable to talk about boy/girl differences, especially in schools, because of the fear of being unfair or stereotyping. The classroom is a highly influential place for a young child, it being where they spend the majority of their time, and so the language they are exposed to in there is a vital part of their learning. In order to create environments that nourish all children and guide them to success, it is important to open up the conversation and explore whether there is a problem.

So, do teachers teach boys and girls differently? If yes, how does this influence achievement levels?

Is there a gender problem in classrooms?

Research suggests that, subconsciously, teachers may be more likely to associate boys with underachievement and girls with high achievement. This can create misconceptions about the expected behaviours and characteristics of the respective groups, which may lead to these students being treated differently.

Here are a few ways in which teaching may differ:

The language used

Using gender stereotypes such as “boys don’t like writing” and “girls settle down and get on with it” may not relay a positive message to students. This could lead to a tendency where boys are seen in terms of things they cannot, will not and do not do, whereas girls are seen in terms of the things they have achieved and their compliant behaviour.

Being aware of our own gender biases will allow educators to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Saying something like “girls are better writers” – a comment made by more than 8 teachers in a survey carried out at the English Department in a high school – can have more of an impact on students than it may seem.

Girls who are underachieving may feel extra pressure to do well, and high achieving boys may feel that their efforts have gone to waste. Teachers are in a unique and privileged position to vocally challenge common stereotypes and show their students that they can be successful in every subject, regardless of their gender.

Compliments in the classroom

Research on observations in the classroom have shown that teachers in that study gave 54 positive comments towards girls, and only 32 towards boys. Over the course of 36 classes, the girls received 22 negative comments with their male counterparts receiving 54.

These figures are an indication of the type of support and responses students receive from their teachers on a day to day basis. Girls are praised much more often for their good work and behaviour, contributing to the continuation of it. If boys do not receive this same feedback, it is fair to expect them to be less likely to exhibit these behaviours. A fascinating report by the Department of Education, in 2009, suggested that positive interaction with the teacher in whole-class sessions kept students, especially boys, motivated and involved. That is one of many examples of the importance of good teacher-students relationships.

Asking questions in class

The under-achieving girl is the least likely to be invited to answer a question in class, and the under-achieving boy is the most likely to be called on to respond. This creates a hurdle in the path to improvement for girls as they may well be overlooked in the classroom.

Due to the perceived norm of boys underachieving, the majority of the focus tends to stay on them. There is almost a whole branch of research dedicated to supporting boys in schools, whilst underachieving girls are often invisible. Not getting the same opportunities for improvement can have long-lasting detrimental effects.

In order to combat these effects and get students more involved, teachers could divide the questions up equally or introduce a traffic light system which has shown to enhance learning. It is a simple and effective technique that gets students to use the colours of the traffic light to indicate their level of understanding. For more tips, check out our blog on how to help students raise their game.

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Pull, don’t push

Achievement levels are a good predictor of behaviour and interaction in the classroom, even more significant than gender. High-achieving students are often focused and disciplined, and underachieving students can fall into one of two groups: they are either quiet and disengaged, or loud and attention-seeking.

This sometimes-disruptive behaviour can have negative effects on the other students and may hinder their learning. But remember: pull, don’t push. This means creating an environment that fosters motivation and entices students so that they feel a pull towards a goal, instead of using the pressure of looming deadlines and fear of failure to push them into something. If teachers aim to get students engaged and interested, they will be better in the classroom in every possible way, from completing tasks to interacting with their peers.

Final thoughts

In order to boost achievement levels and sustain those already outstanding ones, it is important to create equal opportunities that allow all students, regardless of their gender, to succeed and feel supported. It is the subconscious biases that are often the hardest to break, but they are also the ones that can yield the best results if broken.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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